LASD trial: 'Mistakes were made at the top'

ByMiriam Hernandez and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
LASD trial: 'Mistakes were made at the top'
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In the closing arguments of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department corruption trial, defendants placed blame on top leadership.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- "Where is Baca? Where is Tanaka?" defense attorney Michael Stone asked jurors Monday in the second day of closing arguments for six Los Angeles Sheriff's Department officers who stand accused of corruption.

The defendants -- two deputies, two sergeants and two lieutenants -- are on trial for allegedly obstructing a 2011 FBI investigation into abuse and corruption at Men's Central Jail.

Prosecutors say the defendants hid an inmate-turned-FBI informant, intimidated witnesses and threatened an FBI agent with arrest -- all as part of a conspiracy to stop or impede the FBI's investigation. All six defendants have pleaded not guilty.

One of the central arguments for the defense is that the defendants were "following orders from top," that then-Sheriff Lee Baca himself gave the initial order to isolate inmate Anthony Brown, protect him, and find out how a contraband cell phone was smuggled into the jail. Then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka admitted in testimony he was briefed on a regular basis, and authorized or agreed with many of the actions taken by the defendants.

In closing arguments Monday, defense attorneys said the officers were simply "following the chain of command" and were in no position to refuse direct orders from their superiors, including Baca and Tanaka.

"Defense attorneys today continually pointed to the empty chairs," says former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky, who has been following the trial. "Where was Lee Baca, where was Paul Tanaka? That had the leadership, from the very beginning, acted in a more responsible way and tried to work something out with the leadership of the U.S. Attorney's Office, that perhaps we wouldn't be here."

Sgt. Scott Craig's defense attorney Michael Stone told the jurors, "It was time for Sheriff Lee Baca to put on his big boy pants and take control of this investigation."

"Did you ever hear any evidence that Baca put the brakes on?" Stone asked, referring to the LASD's investigation of the FBI. "No, because it didn't happen."

Stone asked "what kind of criminal" would record his interviews, videotape the confrontation with Special Agent Leah Marx, seek a court order from a judge, and agree to appear before a grand jury?

"Does that sound like consciousness of guilt", Stone asked. "Or does that sound like consciousness of innocence?"

Stone acknowledged that in hindsight his client, Scott Craig, "didn't always make the best choices," but the "LASD had an affirmative duty" to conduct its own investigation.

Sgt. Scott Craig and Sgt. Maricela Long each face an additional count of lying to the FBI. Craig told FBI Special Agent Leah Marx, in a confrontation that was videotaped by the LASD, that she was a "named suspect in a felony complaint" and he was "in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant for you."

Stone says those statements "can't be taken literally" -- that Craig was not referring to the type of complaint that's filed with the court; he was talking about an LASD "complaint report" which named Marx as suspect due to her role in the FBI's authorized undercover operation to smuggle that contraband cell phone into jail.

In his closing argument Monday, Sgt. Maricela Long's attorney Angel Navarro told jurors "there's no conspiracy here." Navarro called the FBI operation to give a phone to Anthony Brown a "silly" and "ill-conceived" plan.

"Use common sense -- is this a conspiracy?" Navarro asked the jurors. Long had "no unlawful intent." If she had - why didn't she destroy the audio and videotapes recorded during their investigation? She did not -- and that, Navarro says, is "consistent with innocence."

Navarro also questioned why the prosecution never called inmate Anthony Brown to the stand to testify. "It's pretty obvious why not - it would have been a circus with him."

Brown initially told LASD investigators that the FBI had not just smuggled in the phone, they'd helped to smuggle in drugs - or at least knew that Brown was using their undercover operation to smuggle drugs - meth, marijuana and cocaine.

Brown spun so many tales, LASD investigators didn't know what was true and what was false. Navarro pointed to a recorded phone call in the jail between Anthony Brown and Leah Marx. In that call, Marx says "you can get your (expletive) before you go."

"What does (expletive) mean?" Navarro asked. "Does it mean he's supposed to get a cell phone and drugs to take to prison?"

It was later learned there were no drugs, but Navarro says, "The LASD had an obligation to do its job."

In his closing argument on behalf of Deputy Gerard Smith, defense attorney Bill Genego told jurors that "everyone should agree some mistakes were made at the top," - that the investigation "could have been vetted better."

Deputy Smith, Genego says, "did not do anything without following the chain of command," pointing to emails between Smith and his superiors, including co-defendant Lt. Gregory Thompson.

"It's not like following orders is a 'get out of jail free' card," Genego told jurors. But if someone is following orders they believe to be lawful, "then there is no corrupt intent."

Genego says Smith and other investigators were alarmed by a series of "red flags" as they began to investigate Brown and the contraband phone -- Brown's visitors used fake names, the phone was untraceable, and Brown was telling investigators conflicting stories about how he got the phone.

"In retrospect, it's clear - the FBI was doing an undercover operation." But, Genego says, "things were not clear" early on in the investigation.

Genego sought to downplay Smith's role in the investigation, telling jurors that Smith was not making decisions about whether to change Brown's name, or move him to a station jail.

"This is way above my pay grade," Smith told Anthony Brown in a transcript of a recorded interview Genego re-read to jurors.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Gerard Smith did his job. He did not commit a crime and he is not guilty," Genego told the jury.

Prosecutor Brandon Fox got the last word before jurors in a rebuttal closing argument -- reminding the jury why the FBI was investigating the jails in the first place.

"Widespread abuse of inmates, who were sometimes handcuffed and shackled, visitors assaulted at the jail, cover-ups, falsified police reports that would cause inmates beaten by deputies to be charged with crimes," Fox said.

The LASD's own "internal mechanism had failed," Fox told jurors. LASD executives "either didn't know or didn't care" about the abuse. "Deputies knew they could abuse inmates with impunity."

Fox told jurors that inmate Anthony Brown, despite his failings, "also did some good here."

If it wasn't for Brown and his role in the FBI's undercover operation, deputies would still be abusing inmates, they'd still be taking bribes, and still be smuggling contraband into the jail.

Fox defended Special Agent Leah Marx, who has been criticized by defense attorneys, telling jurors "it was her work that opened up the Pandora's Box, all of the evils of Men's Central Jail."

The defendants declared war not just on the FBI, Fox said, "they declared war on a federal grand jury. Crucial to the government's case is when or if the defendants knew about a federal court order - known as a writ - to turn Anthony Brown over to the United States Marshals Service after the phone was discovered.

"I think it is a make or break point for the prosecution," says Aroni Krinsky. "The prosecution to convict is going to have to show that these defendants didn't simply generally know the FBI was involved, but there was an actual grand jury investigation pending."

Were the defendants hiding Brown to keep him away from the FBI, and to stop or delay his testimony before the federal grand jury? Or were the trying to safeguard Brown from corrupt deputies and inmates who might view him as a snitch?

Fox told the jury the defendants kept Brown isolated so they could "circle the wagons" and "clean their own house" - they didn't want the FBI butting into LASD business.

Did the defendants understand that they had no legal jurisdiction to investigate the FBI or an FBI agent for actions taken as part of a legitimate, authorized undercover investigation?

"They want you to believe they didn't understand Law Enforcement 101," asserted Fox.

Prosecutor Fox took aim at defendant Steve Leavins, reminding jurors the Lieutenant changed his testimony last week about the date of a key meeting he attended with Sheriff Baca, Undersheriff Tanaka and top leaders from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The date is important because at that meeting U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte told Baca to, in Leavins' words, "butt out" of the FBI investigation. Yet, the investigation continued, including surveillance of Special Agent Leah Marx and the alleged intimidation of witnesses.

"He was trying to push that (meeting) back a month," says Fox. Leavins was "the Forrest Gump" of the LASD, "putting himself at meetings when he was not there."

Fox called Leavins a "liar" and mocked a statement made by Leavins' attorney last week. Defense attorney Peter Johnson told jurors that Leavins was all about "leadership, integrity, excellence and service." Fox took apart of each of those assertions, saying a man with integrity "does not commit perjury," a man with excellence "does not abuse power."

"Their job is to do justice, not obstruct justice" Fox told jurors. The LASD's investigation of the FBI should have been "game over" once Baca and others in the department knew the FBI had authorized the undercover operation.

As for those LASD higher-ups who haven't been indicted? Fox told jurors, "To the extent they're ever charged, that's for another jury to consider on another day."

Jurors will begin their deliberations Tuesday morning after receiving jury instructions.